PARIS (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of protesters marched in towns across France on Tuesday against plans to allow companies to cut workers' hours during economic downturns - a policy central to President Francois Hollande's jobs and growth strategy.
The demonstrations, led by two hard-left trade unions, along with muted strike action in the transport, port and power sectors, drew much smaller crowds than anti-reform protests of past years or recent marches against gay marriage.
The labor deal, central to Hollande's efforts to restore competitiveness, was agreed in January by three mainstream unions and employers and should pass into law next month given the Socialist's parliament majority.
The "flexicurity" reform will mean more job security for workers on short-term contracts while making it easier for firms to cut work hours if orders dry up. It also gives them new rights to dismiss any staff who refuse to participate.
With the left in power, there is less of a draw to bring people onto the street. But despite the limited numbers, the crowds marching quietly through Toulouse, Marseille, Lyon, Strasbourg and Paris expressed deep disillusionment over a stalled economy and rampant unemployment.
The hardline CGT and FO unions leading the protests with two smaller unions said 200,000 demonstrators turned out, but police estimates were closer to 20,000 nationwide.
"This accord will considerably worsen workers' conditions in big companies because now any boss can change how long a person works a week and is paid without altering their contract," said radical left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who ran in round one of the 2012 presidential election.
"This is not a step forward, it's a step backward on social and labor progress," he said while on the march in Paris where protesters chanted: "Repeal, repeal this criminal deal!"
The Paris march headed to the National Assembly, which will start debating the bill early next month.
Small-scale strikes caused minor delays to flights out of Paris and public transport in the city.
A 24-hour strike held up the unloading of six oil tankers at the Fos-Lavera hub near Marseille, but strike disruption in the wider energy sector was minor.
Opposition to the deal, which Hollande hopes will stem a rash of industrial layoffs and ease double-digit unemployment, has become a common cause for two unions that are traditionally enemies. Hard-left lawmakers also oppose the reform.
"This is a dangerous deal," FO leader Jean-Claude Mailly told France Inter radio in a rare joint interview with CGT leader Bernard Thibault. "When we agree on something, we fight together."
A CGT spokeswoman said the union opposed all the points in the labor accord, and that it threatened job security.
Waning competitiveness compared to low-wage countries has pulled down French exports over the years and caused the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, helping drive jobless claims up to a 15-year high.
The economic gloom has knocked Hollande's approval ratings down as low as 30 percent since he was elected last May with a pledge to restore jobs and growth.
The bill, which will also seek more flexibility from workers if they are asked to relocate to match fluctuations in demand, will be presented at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday. Hollande wants it enacted by May.
Additional reporting by Nicholas Vinocur and Michel Rose; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Robin Pomeroy